The Last Frontier: Regulating Independent Media Online

Russian dissidents have used the Internet to organize protests and to speak out against corrupt officials and unjust practices. Putin has termed the Internet a “CIA project” and recognizes the power it gives to his opponents. The Kremlin is taking calculated steps to decrease the reach of independent information sources and to clamp down on the opposition online.

Map of Internet Freedom Violations in 2013 [Key: Green=0-3 violations; Yellow=4-9 violations; Orange=10-29 violations; Red=30 or more violations; += includes instances of violence]    Agora Human Rights Association

Since Putin’s re-election, several legislative barriers have been enacted which allow the government to prosecute those who do not hold mainstream opinions. The 2012 law On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development requires all registered media sources to include an age designation. Under this law, children under the age of 18 must not have access to information which may encourage certain behaviors, including gambling, prostitution, violent behavior, homosexual encounters, self-harm or suicide, or substance abuse. The law was amended to order the creation of a registry of websites violating the restrictions which can then be shut down without a court order. Obscene language is outlawed in the media, and companies risk losing their licenses if they do not remove the obscene material. Rosbalt, an opposition television station, lost its license in October 2013 after posting a video of Pussy Riot, although the prohibited terms under the law were not clarified until December 2013. Russia’s broad anti-extremism laws have been used to silence opposition members, including bloggers. The use of vague legislation is a Soviet-era tool which effectively promotes self-censorship and gives the government a great deal of discretion in enforcement.

Investigating corruption has become difficult due to legal obstacles. Libel is a criminal offense with steep fines, and some media companies have had their editorial equipment seized in the course of an investigation. It is also illegal to publish information about an individual’s personal life without consent. Alexei Navalny, a prominent blogger writing about corruption, said:

The only reason my blog exists is censorship in the media, and if there weren’t any, lots and lots of ordinary journalists would write about the stuff I write about, and my blog just wouldn’t be interesting to anyone.”

Navalny’s blog was blocked in Russia along with other independent news sites on March 13. This was possible due to a law passed on January 30 which allows prosecutors to block access to websites which encourage participation in unapproved protests and incite unrest. Starting August 1, bloggers with 3000 or more visitors per day must register as media outlets with Roskomnadzor, the media oversight authority. They must comply with media regulations, as well as fact-check their posts and the comments. Bloggers must include their surname, initials, and email address on their page. This makes it easy to prosecute bloggers for libel or “extremist” views.

While Putin has denied that Russia has a domestic surveillance system to track users online, a new bill would require Internet companies to store Russians’ personal data within Russia’s borders, to allow intelligence and security officers access. Companies would have to relocate servers and data centers to Russia and supply six months’ worth of data, or their site would be blocked. This would impact sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which have been a common means of organization and information sharing. The bill would allow the government to track supporters of prominent opposition members. Social media users can even be arrested for liking or sharing “extremist” materials.

More restrictive legislation continues to be put forth by United Russia, Putin’s party. Under such intense pressure, self-censorship can become the norm to avoid politically-driven litigation, which is an issue that should be more thoroughly examined.

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